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Exclusive: Syria chemical weapons mission funded only through this month

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad drive a military vehicle carrying a picture of Assad on its windscreen as smoke rises in t
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad drive a military vehicle carrying a picture of Assad on its windscreen as smoke rises in t

By Anthony Deutsch

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The international body tasked with eliminating Syria's chemical weapons has raised only enough money so far to fund its mission through this month, and more cash will have to be found soon to pay for the destruction of poison gas stocks next year.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize last month, is overseeing the destruction of Syria's nerve agent stocks under a U.S.-Russian agreement reached in September.

It has so far raised about 10 million euros ($13.5 million) for the task.

"It is the assessment of the Secretariat that its existing personnel resources are sufficient for operations to be conducted in October and November 2013," said an October 25 OPCW document seen by Reuters. At the time, its account held just 4 million euros.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad says the total cost could be $1 billion, although experts say it is likely to be lower, running into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on where and how the chemical arms are destroyed.

The United States has been the biggest contributor so far to the OPCW's fund for the Syria mission, with Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland also contributing.

Washington has contributed $6 million in equipment, training and cash, split between funds with the OPCW and the United Nations, the OPCW document said.

Under the joint Russian-American proposal, Syria agreed in September to destroy its entire chemical weapons program by mid-2014. The move averted missile strikes threatened by Washington following an August 21 sarin gas attack in the outskirts of Damascus that killed hundreds of people.

RISING COSTS

Until September, Syria was one of a handful of countries that were not party to a global treaty outlawing the stockpiling of chemical arms.

Damascus's joining of the Chemical Weapons Convention creates the unique problem of safely destroying huge stockpiles of poisons in the middle of a civil war that has killed 100,000 people and driven up to a third of Syrians from their homes.

Personnel costs will be largely covered by the OPCW's regular budget, less than an annual $100 million, but the Hague-based organisation will need substantial additional resources.

By the end of next week, the OPCW and Syria must agree to a detailed plan of destruction, explaining in detail how and where to destroy the poisons, including mustard gas, sarin and possibly VX.

The OPCW said last week its teams had inspected 21 out of 23 chemical weapons sites across the country, meeting a key November 1 deadline. Two other sites were too dangerous to reach for inspection, but critical equipment had already been moved to other sites that experts had visited, it said.

Syria declared to the OPCW 30 production, filling and storage facilities, eight mobile filling units and three chemical weapons-related facilities.

They contained approximately 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, mostly in the form of raw precursors, 290 metric tons of loaded munitions and 1,230 unfilled munitions, OPCW documents showed.

Four other countries have pledged to contribute an additional 2.7 million euros to the OPCW fund, the document said. Germany, Italy and the Netherlands supplied air transport to fly OPCW team members to Syria, while other European countries and the United States provided armored vehicles that were shipped by Canada, the document said.

SHIP TO ALBANIA?

The United Kingdom has pledged to give $3 million, while Russia, France and China said they will donate experts and technical staff, who need to witness the entire, time-consuming destruction process.

A major cost still to come will be the likely shipping of raw chemicals out of Syria for safe destruction away from the war zone. Discussions are ongoing with countries willing to host the facilities to incinerate or chemically neutralize the poisons, including Albania, Belgium and an unspecified Scandinavian country, two sources said.

Companies in the United States, Germany and France are competing for the contract to provide destruction facilities, sources said.

Since being established under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, the OPCW has overseen the destruction of more than 50,000 tons of toxic munitions, or more than 80 percent of the world's declared stockpile.

The United States and Russia, the largest possessors of chemical weapons, are years behind schedule in destroying their arsenals.

($1 = 0.7402 euros)

(Additional reporting By Michelle Nichols in New York, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, John Irish in Paris; Editing by Sara Webb and Peter Graff)

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